Skyway News: How Nicollet Island became what it is today

A park with homeowners and, perhaps, a private school’s athletic fields by Scott Russell

»A proposal to expand DeLaSalle High’s athletic field onto public parkland has hit a very old and very deep Nicollet Island nerve, firing up decades-old debates about how to best use the island’s historic, scenic and very limited space.

Nicollet Island – a 48-acre chunk of limestone in the middle of the Mississippi River – is at the city’s geographic and historic center. Bootleggers, Bohemians and the city’s financial elite have called the island home during its history. Varying interests have vied for space, from heavy industry and commerce to private education and residences.

Current residents such as attorney Barry Clegg oppose DeLaSalle’s current plans, saying they are out of the island’s character. “The reason people come to Nicollet Island is not to play sports,” he said. “The reason park visitors come is for two reasons. One is the river, the other is to walk around and look at the old houses.”

John Derus, a DeLaSalle grad and current board member, said most city residents don’t know that Clegg and other north end residents have their homes on Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board land – what he calls the residents’ “own exclusive little club.”

“Their end of the island is not a park,” Derus said. “It is a private domicile.”

Why does the Park Board let people live on parkland?

And why would the Park Board consider leasing parkland to a private school for a new athletic field – even if the Park Board would get partial use – when the Park Board used $1 million in public money to buy the land to use as open space?

As always, the ghosts of the past manipulate the present.

Modern history

The roots of today’s disputes lie in two key Park Board agreements (see sidebars, page 13).

In 1979, the Metropolitan Council began giving the Park Board money to buy large chunks of Nicollet Island. In return, the Park Board agreed the land would remain open space.

Then in 1983, the Park Board and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) cut a complex deal balancing competing interests: park lovers, history buffs, island residents and DeLaSalle.

The agreement gave people a 99-year lease to rehab historic homes located on parkland. The Park Board was required to “make its best efforts” to build an “outdoor neighborhood recreational and athletic facility” on parkland near DeLaSalle – in apparent contradiction to the 1979 open space agreement.

Those two contracts tell part of the story, but the chain of events shaping Nicollet Island today stretch back half a century.

The wrecking ball cometh

In 1955, the city began cleaning up its “Skid Row.” The urban renewal project removed blighted property on the Downtown side of the river, dislocating down-and-out residents. A city analysis said some went to the next-cheapest spot: Nicollet Island.

Said former resident Fred Markus, “If you were in urban planning, it was a place that was plagued with dilapidated housing slated for removal, and the people who lived there were challenged by many social ills. If you lived there, it was like living in a little rural village.”

The 300-person “village” included Christian Brothers, old people with generations-long roots and university drop-outs – “people whose hold on the usual rules of organized society was, shall we say, a bit thin,” Markus said.

Two island icons were Doris Parks and her donkey Sheba, one of numerous island critters.

The residents coexisted with many commercial and industrial companies such as Minneapolis Cold Storage; Twin City Tile and Marble; and a truck leasing firm.

By 1968, the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority (MHRA, MCDA’s predecessor) adopted the Nicollet Island/East Bank Urban Renewal Plan. It recommended Nicollet Island commercial, recreational and residential redevelopment, but according to a city summary, did not mention a park.

The MHRA began buying island property.

In 1972, city leaders issued “Mississippi Minneapolis,” a report that said the island should function as “the center attraction for Riverfront Revitalization [with] clearly outstanding potential for becoming one of the major identifying elements not only of the city but of the entire region.”

The next report changed the Nicollet Island debate, some say.

In 1974, consultants Miller Dunwiddy evaluated Nicollet Island’s homes, which had become part of the newly created St. Anthony Historic District.

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn (a current island resident who did not live there at the time) said some people thought the report would justify tearing down the homes as useless. Instead, Kahn remembers, “This report came back saying it was the best collection of preserved unruined Victorian houses anywhere in the city and it should distinctly be kept.”

Such arguments didn’t move everyone. Even today, Brian Rice, Park Board attorney and DeLaSalle grad, calls it “a crock.”

“When they talk about the historic nature of the island – hell, if you were going to preserve the historic nature of the island, you would have tenements and business on the island,” he said. “From the 1930s to the 1970s, until they got moved off, it was hobo land.”

However, resident John Chaffee said after the housing report, city leaders stopped calling for demolition and started calling for preservation.

The dot

That same year, 1974, the Legislature created the Metro Parks Open Space Commission, said Al Whitman, at the time a Minneapolis Park Board planner. The Commission was to fund new regional parks on the metro area’s fringes, but Minneapolis Rep. James Casserly pushed for money for the core cities, too.

The Chain of Lakes and Wirth Park became eligible for state cash, Whitman said. As the bill was finalized, he recalled, someone put a dot on the map in Downtown Minneapolis.

“With a dot on the map, the city had to prepare a master plan for how that regional park would look,” Whitman said.

In 1977, a city-parks Riverfront Development Coordination Board asked for funds to buy island parkland.

The metro parks group rejected the city plan. Letting residents live in homes violated open-space funding rules. The historic buildings weren’t the issue; the residents were, according to July 1978 Riverfront Board minutes.

Patty Hillmeyer, then a Park Board member, also opposed residential use. “I had the vision that it would be flattened and it would all be public land,” she said during a recent interview.

She still recalls the battles at Park Board meetings, with residents pushing for the status quo.

“God, we had the donkey lady,” she said. “There was a noodle factory on the north end of the island. She wanted to forever make a stable down there for her donkey. Then there was the horse-and-buggy gal. She wanted to go in with the donkey lady and keep the horses down there. We kept saying no.

“I was the bad guy, or bad girl. I was the meanie all the time.”

Chaffee and other islanders argued residents were essential for a successful park. “What we told the city then is, if you clear the entire island and make it into a big woodsy space in the middle of Downtown, it is not going to be a very safe place,” he said.

The city’s Riverfront Board resubmitted plans in late 1978 that led to the initial $4.6 million open space grant – but not without a tussle. The metro parks group recommended delaying funding until the city detailed how homes would work on parkland. The Met Council approved the city plan anyway.

Details, details

Aspects of that plan would have resulted in a very different island. The Riverfront Board’s 1978 master plan refers to an “Historic Village Preserve” on the residential north end.

“A community meeting house and plaza should be included to provide the focus of the proposed Historic Village Preserve and would be used to provide visitors information pertaining to the various historic houses in the Preserve, and to provide them with descriptions of programmed events; and should include facilities for meetings of various groups, including historical societies and horticultural groups.”

A December 1978 Whitman memo told the Met Council that the Park Board would retain four historic homes for public use: one for display, one for concessions, a third for public toilets and the fourth for park staff.

It never happened.

Whitman said he couldn’t remember the details, but it was one of many efforts to find a compromise between the parties. It met with reluctance, most likely from residents, he said.

Even then, the DeLaSalle athletic field was on the table. Whitman’s memo also said: “Additional space has been reserved Š for outdoor athletic playfields. It will be developed so that both the public and the school will have usage.”

The memo said the field would be on so-called “outparcel” or non-parkland.

The mayor calls a meeting

Despite the 1978 master plan, the Nicollet Island debate continued for years. The Housing Authority had land for redevelopment. The Park Board had money to acquire open space. Residents, as Whitman recalls “wanted to be left alone. But no one seemed to be interested in just leaving them alone.”

A 1980 City Planning Department memo on “the future of Nicollet Island” let fly with a flash of bureaucratic candor verging on a motivational speech.

After listing the island’s many virtues, the memo imploringly asked how such an island “could possibly have lain a foundling for so long on the doorsteps of a great city – and yet again and again and again, when the time for action came, voices faltered, visions faded and doers turned to less controversial projects.”

It continued: “We think that the greatest contribution the mayor, in the name of the people of Minneapolis, could make would be to gain consensus on a durable theme for Nicollet Island. Once there is agreement, by whatever means achieved (cajolery, fiat, reason, purchase, superior power or exhaustion – and all have been tried at some point) on the theme, then everything else falls readily into place.”

Then-Mayor Don Fraser called such a meeting, Whitman said. He doesn’t recall when it happened, and thinks it was an impromptu Saturday meeting.

It resulted in the Nicollet Island Agreement, which on May 19, 1983 cemented the island’s current course.

The Park Board and MCDA (the HRA morphed into the MCDA in 1980) agreed to stick to their strengths. The Park Board would own the land; the MCDA would rehab the houses.

Fixing the island

The MCDA sold the deteriorated north-end homes to private owners for $1, via a lottery system. Owners had to renovate the houses to historic standards.

In 1992, Clegg did one of the last such projects. He spent nearly $200,000 to completely strip and rebuild his home, he said. (It was so run-down the only original parts are the 2-by-4s.) The house Kahn was going to rehab burned down; she rebuilt from scratch.

The residents have land leases from the Park Board that run for 99 years, when ownership reverts to the park system. If the original homeowners sell, the Park Board land lease requires they split any profits above the average Minneapolis appreciation equally with the city and Park Board.

The MCDA retained several large historic homes and rehabilitated them as 22 co-op units, city staff said. Three units are market-rate and the rest are affordable to people between 50 and 80 percent of Metro Median Income.

Then-Councilmember Tony Scallon pushed the idea.

“I would never have supported Nicollet Island open space if there wasn’t some affordable housing there,” he said. “It was more than affordable – that was neighborhood housing. That was for the folks who had saved the island, from my point of view.

“There was a whole group of people like Doris Parks and Fred Markus, and many that I don’t remember the names of, whose actions and activities saved the housing. That is the start of Minneapolis they saved,” he said.

(Neither Parks nor Markus – the first chair of a resident-led group to preserve the island’s residential community -now live on the island. Parks lives in Iowa, Markus in South Minneapolis.)

Today, the island has few private landowners. DeLaSalle owns the school. John Kerwin owns a 10-unit rental-loft building at Grove & Nicollet streets, a former truck leasing headquarters.

Kerwin also redeveloped and lives in the 18-unit Grove Street Flats; he saved the building, then known as Eastman Flats, a day before scheduled demolition. He developed a second condo project in 1984, the 10-unit West Island Avenue condo. Condo associations own the land and buildings.

The Park Board owns the rest of the island, including the land under the Nicollet Island Inn.

Residents: NIMBYs or island protectors

Former Park Board President Hillmeyer said she objected to residential development on the island because people who live by public land begin to think of it as their personal public land.

“This happens at Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet,” she said. “You begin to think of it as your own. And you want to put conditions on it.”

Residents such as Chaffee say they have helped protect the island, both by deterring crime and by fighting inappropriate development. When the city was going to put in new blacktop on the north-end streets, residents argued for brick pavers that kept down speeds and gave a more historic appearance, he said. (Public Works said the project cost $1 million in 1996. It included state and, neighbors said, Neighborhood Revitalization Program money.)

Whitman said the Nicollet Island agreements were a long and difficult negotiation. “I think the Island turned out to be a pleasant place that the public could enjoy,” he said.

Metropolitan Parks and Open Space staffer Arne Stefferud says that Nicollet Island and the Central Riverfront ranked 10th in the number of visitors of the metro area’s 36 regional parks and 10 park reserves, with 721,500 visits in 2003.

Building ballfields

The 1983 Nicollet Island Agreement – signed by then-MCDA head James Heltzer and Hillmeyer – promised the Park Board would build DeLaSalle an athletic facility on neighboring parkland. Parks Commissioner Bob Fine, an attorney, said the agreement “might tie us in, so we have to.”

It is a provision with some mystery. It appears to contradict the 1979 contract with the Met Council, which said the parkland should remain open space. Further, DeLaSalle is not a party to the ’79 contract.

Who asked for the DeLaSalle language four years later?

Whitman, the senior park planner and point person negotiating the contract, said the MCDA requested it. DeLaSalle supporters “had some influence with MCDA members,” he said. “It was not something the Park Board would have volunteered.”

Heltzer, reached at his Bemidji home, said he did not remember negotiating the DeLaSalle language. “I have no idea,” he said. “That is almost 30 years ago. I don’t recall what the purpose of that was.”

The MCDA’s mayoral representative Jan Hively and City Council representative Lyall Schwarzkopf don’t recall the DeLaSalle field issue coming up, either.

Met Council minutes show that its open-space commission was concerned about the Nicollet Island Agreement. Stefferud wrote a May 1983 memo that stated “construction of the football field and tennis courts as a neighborhood recreation facility would not be consistent with regional park uses. Š [R]egional park funds could not be used to acquire the land upon which the facility is located.”

Stefferud still works for the Met Council. He said he only recently learned the Park Board had built tennis courts on the open-space land, a use he now calls “iffy.”

Whitman noted the 1983 contract says the Park Board is not obligated to build the DeLaSalle athletic facility until DeLaSalle and the Park Board have “a reciprocal agreement” for using the athletic facility and “existing facilities of DeLaSalle.” The Park Board envisioned DeLaSalle sharing not only the outdoor athletic field but its inside space as well, such as the gym and meeting rooms.

He noted, “There has never been a reciprocal agreement written out.”

Million-dollar tennis courts

The current battle centers on Park Board tennis courts at Grove & Nicollet streets, built by the Park Board on parkland.

DeLaSalle has proposed expanding the athletic fields across Grove Street and onto the site of the current tennis courts.

The Park Board paid $1.1 million to acquire that property, the former home of Island Tile and Marble, according to Board documents.

Some residents say that DeLaSalle has a football field already – and got it by expanding into part of Grove Street, making it narrower. Kahn said the residents have accommodated previous DeLaSalle requests; for instance, the school gets first call on the tennis courts.

(The court has no sign indicating it is a public facility.)

People should have fought the tennis court addition, she said: “People have been too nice. In retrospect, people should have fought every single one of these.”

The DeLaSalle dispute has pitted veteran political leaders against each other in an adult version of a schoolyard brawl. Kahn said her neighbors are upset DeLaSalle tried to get Park Board approval for the athletic complex “behind their backs.”

“I think this is Derus’ style: the old North Side style of bullying it through,” she said.

Derus counters that Kahn “uses her office to threaten everybody. She gets her way over and over again.”

Derus charged that island residents tried to organize opposition from neighborhood groups without notifying the school so it could present its side. He calls residents’ concerns about the DeLaSalle field “overblown,” “irrational” and “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard). He says residents, not DeLaSalle, got “a sweetheart deal,” living in what amounts to a “gated community” – without the gates.

Such charges make residents such as Clegg bristle – and he goes to his files to whip out his $4,563 property-tax bill for 2005.

Landowner and island resident Kerwin takes a different stance from many residents. He doesn’t oppose DeLaSalle’s athletic complex – and his 10-unit apartment would be right across the street from it.

“DeLaSalle supported us and they supported people on the north tip at a time when they could have taken an all-or-nothing attitude,” he said. “They had plans at that time to put athletic fields on most of the island.”

The current DeLaSalle field isn’t big enough to accommodate bleachers. Derus said it couldn’t accommodate soccer. DeLaSalle would build the expanded facility and allow supervised Park Board teams to use it during the summer.

The Park Board “gets a soccer venue all summer long, which they badly need,” Derus said. “There is nothing like that around. That [$1 million] is real cheap. We are paying for everything. They are not paying for anything.”

Kerwin says DeLaSalle should get creative and put the bleachers on the east bank, so people can watch the game from across the river.

How will the two sides resolve the conflicts between open space and the athletic facility, given the apparent contradictions in past agreements?

Said Derus: “I don’t know. It is a problem.”

He said he is willing to go to the Met Council and have that body make the final decision.«

Original article and two sidebars here at Skyways News website.

1 thought on “Skyway News: How Nicollet Island became what it is today

  1. Chris Post author

    After reading this article and attending MPRB meetings I wonder who will really benefit from this DeLaSalle debacle. “We are paying for everything. They are not paying for anything.” says John Derus. If there is a lawsuit by either side the MPRB will be paying out quite a few of the taxpayers’ dollars in legal fees. I am sorry but I do not see as to how this project will be “FREE” as the DeLaSalle promoters keep repeating. In fact it seems the most likely beneficiary of all of this will be MPRB attorney Brian Rice.

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